Sunday, 12 July 2015

Kingsley Hall Revisited, by Dr Stephen Woodhams

Review of:
Sunday, 7th June 2015

If you went “mad” how would you want to be treated?

BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a series called 'The Reunion' and it was perhaps something of the kind that occurred at Café Oto* when two distinguished figures were brought together to recall memories and tell the story of a 'social experiment'. The story starts, and yet of course does not, in 1965, when Kingsley Hall was made available for a group of people at very different social­psychological points to live together in a non­hierarchical, non­divided manner. Two of the occupants of Kingsley Hall were Dr Joseph Berke and Dr Leon
Redler, and it was they who had been brought together to make this small yet significant piece of history at Café Oto on a Sunday evening in June fifty years later. Café Oto is not Kingsley Hall. Yet that Sunday evening those that packed into the bare surroundings of a once purpose­built C19 factory,** where seating could leave an impression on a backside and heat aided shedding weight in sweat, may have sensed something of a social experiment. In the gloom of the interior, organiser and anchor for the evening, Dee Sada took the stage to thank everyone for coming. Though Dee gave no indication and took no credit, the event had taken some three years to bring together. However none of this background was revealed, instead after her brief introduction, the stage was given over to film­maker Luke Fowler. What You See Is Where You're At was made, Luke told the audience, some fifteen years previous. Compose of exerts of interviews with past residents of Kingsley Hall and clips of footage shot during the occupancy, What You See Is Where You're At offered an insight to both context and lived experience of RD Laing's idea. The film is worth seeing, though it was perhaps after that understanding of some of what had been seen, became clearer when Leon Redler in conversation with Luke Fowler, explained his path to RD Laing and so Kingsley Hall.

Kingsley Hall is in Bow, an area of East  London which if marginalised from the outside by trunk roads, is yet home to vibrant populations. Among some local people, Gandhi Hall is the immediate and obvious description – the building's most famous resident having stayed there in 1931. Luke Fowler and Leon Redler offered a little of this history as setting for what took place there, though of course that was only one part, another being the circumstance of 'mental health' patients. Despite attempts to move practice forward,
and growing interest in psychoanalytic and other social­interpretive­communication based approaches, regimes involving forced drugs and electro­convulsive treatments were probably dominant in the NHS. The social experiment was to see what might happen when people lived together not as professionals and patients, but as a population seeking to understand diverse experiences and expressions of a circumstance commonly named 'madness'. Leon Redler's analogy with the previous night's Champion's League Final, was in answer to Luke Fowler's question as to difference between Kingsley Hall on film and as lived experience. In essence, just as the match produced 'highlights', so film captured perhaps moments to engage an audience. The lived experience however was very much more ordinary, the everyday routine and even dullness of life for residents. Yet that was perhaps the point – 'RD Laing's Kingsley Hall' has been mythologised to become something exotic. Perhaps a balanced record would read that it was a endeavour to seek more humane means of living with 'madness' and that what ever the realised short comings, the impulse behind the attempt remains valid.

Joseph Berke's presentation differed in style. Anecdotal in places, it revealed some of his experiences and memories. Perhaps best known was his long and at times suffering relationship with the later artist Mary Barnes. The material for her early work is well known and in the film, we see Mary and Joe Berke at perhaps an early stage, where physical interaction is to the fore. Eventually they were to write, Two Accounts of Madness, a title that captures perhaps the spirit of the Hall. Not the separate 'reports' of
patient and therapist, but two stories told of a process lived through together but experienced differently. Fire was a magazine produced at the Hall, and Joe Berke presented a copy to the audience, who may have regretted that images contained could not have been put on view. What was offered however were poems, Joe reading a small number accompanied by Dee. It was in the reading of these perhaps that the sense of
what Kingsley Hall had been about, gained immediacy. Recollections gave insight to the life and times of Kingsley Hall, the poetry portrayed its spirit. An aside admittedly, Joe Berke revealed how Mary Barnes Catholicism had led him to re­engage with his own Jewish heritage, yet perhaps the profession speaks something too of the spirit of the Hall, a sense of sharing and journeying on roads that may enable any participant to reflect on where roots to their own self may grow.

Laing at 50 was an evening made by people, a lot of people, crammed into a hot darkened room. On stage the Bohman Brothers ended the evening making music and poetry where the name RD Laing took on various connections and where ideas associated with him found expression. The social experiment at Kingsley Hall was of course of its time – when else could it have been? The New Left was as others like Stuart Hall have recalled, pervasive ­ RD Laing and David Cooper were contributors to the Dialectics of Liberation Conference at the Roundhouse in 1967. Organisations that have grown from Kingsley Hall, the Philadelphia Association and the Arbours Association are necessarily different from the original experiment, yet what came through from Leon Redler and Joseph Berke was a passion that the Flame, the impulse that gave birth to the Hall should live on. To borrow a term from Raymond Williams, a near cousin in more than age to RD Laing, the long revolution toward a humane psychiatry and beyond that a humane society has to be pursued. Both history marker and celebration, that Sunday evening in June reminds us that any road to social justice has to address despair, suffering, pain and loss as it can be experienced by any person and that love needs be at the centre of any response.


My thanks to Sally England of Hackney Archive for this information.

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